Recently I’ve been thinking about forbidden foods, specifically coconut oil. Twenty years ago that’s exactly what coconut oil was: forbidden. To the anti-fat nutcases in the 70’s and 80‘s, coconut oil was dangerously high in cholesterol, and therefore verboten. Now, of course, we “know” (?) that many fats are good for us - including coconut oil.
This is good news. Butter, bacon drippings, bone marrow - and, yes, coconut oil - are ‘way too delicious to exclude from the kitchen.
When it comes to sweet baked goods my best fat friend is butter, but I sometimes love what happens when I take part of the butter out of a recipe and replace it with coconut oil: the flavor sweetens and shifts in an interesting way. One problem arises from the fact that coconut oil, unlike butter, contains no water. This means that baked goods made with it don’t rise as much. (Water converts to steam in the oven, which lifts the batter, making an open, airy crumb.)
Last week, something I’ve noticed dozens of times finally caught my attention: The jar of coconut oil in my pantry liquifies every time we run the clothes dryer, which occupies the bottom shelf. This means that coconut oil goes from solid to liquid at about 80 F. Not shocking news, except that it also means it might be possible to emulsify the fat with hot water, then cool the emulsion to solidity, making a fat that simulates butter.
I’m sure some big food processor has already thought of this, but to me it was an experiment worth trying. So the next time I ran my oven’s bread rise cycle, which is 100 F, I stuck the jar of coconut oil in. While the oil liquified, I drew a beaker full of hot tap water and reached for the whisk.
All of us eat more emulsified fats than we probably realize. They’re the basis for salad dressings, and as such are derived from a standard formula, one part water (or vinegar) to three parts fat. I took this as my starting ratio. Heating a stainless steel bowl by immersion in a larger bowl filled with hot tap water (about 110 F), I added 10 grams of hot water. In a separate warm bowl I measured 30 grams of melted coconut oil. As if making Caesar dressing, I whisked the water vigorously and dribbled the oil in. To my pleased amazement, the emulsion held.
I still had to end up with a useful, solid fat, which meant chilling the emulsion below 80 degrees. I’d not thought through that part of the experiment, but there had to be something in the freezer which would work - such as the bin full of ice cubes, a waste of space that I usually curse (I rarely use ice cubes) but which I was suddenly thankful to have.
Replacing the hot water bath with a bowl of ice cubes, I plunged in the stainless bowl of emulsified coconut oil and kept whisking. Soon enough the fat was so thick I could barely turn the whisk, at which point I removed the product to the refrigerator. After clean-up I checked my results. A thin layer of water had escaped, but at least 3/4 remained trapped in the emulsion. Success!
I still had to bake with it. My plan all along had been flaky corn biscuits. You see, we’re at that time of year when I begin thinking about spring, a season that’s represented in my head by morel mushrooms and fresh, ripe strawberries. I always freeze several quarts of the latter, and they tend to migrate to the bottom drawer. In February I dig them out, recall that soon I can replace them with the real thing, and make several batches of strawberry shortcake. Which in my kitchen doesn’t involve shortcake at all, but the lightest, flakiest biscuits I can muster.
I wasn’t totally convinced that replacing all the butter in my standard biscuit recipe was a good idea. Butter tastes so good, and it won’t leave a blocky aftertaste, like other fats. I thought a 1/3 coconut emulsion 2/3 butter ratio would be just about right. Also, I didn’t want to use all cornmeal. Cornmeal adds flavor, color and texture, but a light, starchy flour blend helps the structure of biscuits. Again I opted for a 1/3 : 2/3 ratio, with the 1/3 part being Medicine Man stoneground cornmeal from Lanterman Mills and the larger portion being my standard GF teff pastry blend (I make up large batches from 167 grams Ivory Teff flour, 145 grams corn starch, 115 grams Expandex modified tapioca starch and 13 grams potato flour).
To get flaky results requires some effort. I began by chilling everything: flour, fats, buttermilk, a medium mixing bowl. Once the ingredients were cold the oven had to be hot. I preheated it, and a cookie sheet, to 425 F.
My small recipe calls for 80 grams GF pastry flour and 40 grams cornmeal. I put this in the cold bowl, then added 1 tsp sugar, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp xanthan gum, 1/8 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp baking soda, and mixed well. Next I weighed out 10 grams of coconut emulsion and 30 grams of unsalted butter and tossed these into the flour. With a table knife I chopped them into random sized bits, the biggest of which was the size of the end of my thumb. Next I reached into the flour and squeezed each bit of fat, flattening it paper thin. A few tosses with the whisk distributed those flakes.
Now came the tricky part: adding 100 grams of buttermilk. This could be simply stirred in, but that would destroy all those carefully pressed butter bits. So, I pushed my flake-filled flour up on the sides of the bowl, creating a deep well, and poured in the milk. With the table knife I collapsed the well sides down onto the pool.
While the flour soaked up buttermilk I spread a sheet of plastic on my work surface, then inverted the bowl over it. This mound of flour wasn’t yet integrated - buttermilk oozed out like cold lava - so I dropped another sheet of plastic atop it and pressed down. Done slowly this worked and the flour absorbed milk.
To make the dough full integrated while keeping it flaky I folded and tapped as if making puff pastry. A few curse words got emitted along the way - tapping too hard sent a squirt of buttermilk onto my jeans - but all in all the dough came together in a few minutes. I did a finish fold to create a sheet of dough about an inch thick, then used a 1” circular cookie cutter dipped in rice flour to shape the biscuits. These I arranged on parchment and slid the parchment onto the hot cookie sheet. 12 minutes of baking is all that’s needed (turn the cookie sheet half way through). The results: well, that’s why there’s no photos with this blog. They were so terrific we ate all 10 mini-biscuits at one sitting!
Here’s the one dicey bit: when using baking powder/baking soda to add rise to baked goods, you’ve got to get them in the oven ASAP. Wetted with water or milk, those ingredients create a chemical reaction that plays out in a hurry. Thus I folded and tapped more quickly than I’d like. Which is how I got buttermilk on me. And also how I ended up with some parts of the dough not quite wet. I’m thinking you could skip the powder/soda and take more time, and some day I’ll try. But for now, stuffed full of wonderfully sweet, tender-but-crunchy, drenched with sugared strawberries and whipped cream, bright yellow biscuits, I’m too happy to move.